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Monday, September 21, 2009

Lucky Penny: A Love Story

"Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. and Mrs. Daren Carter"

On September 19, 2009, Daren and Kim completed the first chapter of their incredible story by becoming man and wife. I was among the select group of friends and family who had the privilege of sharing their day; I also had the honor of coordinating the music for the ceremony and sharing DJ duties at the reception (a previously unrealized skill). Daren has been one of my closest friends since meeting at Tenaya Middle School in Fresno 20 years ago. We've seen each other through some doomed relationships in the past but when he introduced Kim to my wife Kacy and me, like many others have said, I was instantly aware of the amazing connection between them.

It all started on a night out with friends, back in early 2006. Victor, a former classmate of ours, knew one of Kim's friends so he began talking to their group. Daren returned from the restroom when he and Kim made eye contact and began talking, both feeling a strong connection from the beginning; Daren has described their first meeting as "love at first sight". As the evening came to an end, Kim noticed a penny on the floor laying "heads up" and gave it to Daren, she told him "this is a lucky penny". Kim was in a relationship at the time so they went their separate ways that night but Daren gave her his number in case they would get a second chance someday. He knew from how things were going that they both hoped they'd meet again when timing would be on their side. He went home, frustrated that they couldn't go out together but confident that they would see each other again.

Two years later, Daren received a text message on his phone that read "lucky penny". He knew it was Kim, and they made plans to have drinks the following weekend. That evening, Daren asked Kim to reach into his pocket and she pulled out that lucky penny she gave him when they first met. For me, a very interesting and important factor in their reunion is that he was newly single when he got her text, having just ended a difficult relationship. Timing kept them apart after that first night but he became available just in time for them to reconnect. Regardless of timing, I'm pretty sure that nothing would have kept him from answering the message he waited two years for.

Not long after they began dating officially, he brought Kim to my dad's house to meet us, around early Spring of 2008. Later that year, they had a holiday party; I thought he may have been using that as a chance to pop the question because I knew just as well as he did that she was the one for him. I asked him before the party and he said "no, but don't worry I'll tell you when I do." Just two months later he called to tell me that he had the ring and on Valentine's Day she said yes. On their wedding day, with Daren's Best Man Kevin, his friend for 30 years, by his side and Stacey, Daren's cousin, by Kim's side, Daren's lucky penny lived up to its name.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Call A Plumber, The Music Industry Is Leaking

There is a wave of leaks plaguing the music industry, but it's not coming from the bathroom sinks in record label offices. In the industry, the distribution of new music before it's planned release date is known as a leak. Some are intentional, like MTV's "The Leak", in which new albums are made available to preview before they're released meant as a catalyst to boost early album sales. However, the problem comes when the new releases hit the Internet for downloading before they're released in stores which puts an early halt to album sales. There are probably thousands of sources that host a wide range of albums for free, but most of them are old releases and most site owners urge visitors to purchase the album after listening. Of course, good intentions only go so far so many people build up their music libraries without supporting the artist. Any site owner who provides access to download full albums and expects visitors to still go buy the album is foolishly idealistic, being that in an iPod and mp3 world, many just want the music files. Personally, I love having the actual album artwork and being able to read the liner notes. My friend Tony, author of "Tony's Hazy Concert Memories" in my sidebar, has a home office and on one wall stands a large wooden storage unit which hosts his entire CD collection. To see the colored spines of his CD cases adorning his wall, filled with the incredible music that is the soundtrack to his life, is incredible.

I think back to the days before the Internet when MTV and radio were the only outlets for hearing new music from your favorite artists and the premiere of a new music video was highly anticipated. The Internet is an invaluable tool but, as with anything, it can be a dangerous resource for those who misuse it. Unfortunately, there are people out there who do not believe that artists should receive due payment for their work and they post new music to be taken, and there are plenty of takers. Some artists have fought back, as Eminem did when he released his album "The Eminem Show" on a Sunday, two days before its planned release, when news spread that his album was available on the Internet. Tuesday has long been the standard day for new releases to hit stores, although Fridays would be better being "payday" for most people. From time to time, artists will release their album on other days like Friday or Sunday, like Pearl Jam whose new release Backspacer hits stores September 20th, this Sunday. I'm not sure if it's a way of putting extra attention on their album for its unusual release date or, like with Eminem, an attempt to get people in the stores who cannot wait any longer and will resort to downloading illegally.

A serious lack of security at the recording studios is the real problem here, because if any accountability or protection were in place this could not possibly happen. First of all, no studio should allow cell phones, recording devices or storage devices in the mixing room or recording area. Next, the media on which the music is recorded should be locked away after each session with access allowed to only the artist and the producer. Once it leaves the studio, when the finished mastered copy is prepared for duplication and packaging, there needs to be some monitoring done there as well to ensure none of the copies are taken. If those kinds of practices were in place, there would be no excuse for music to be leaked, but obviously there is some carelessness involved in the recording process these days. I don't know much about the industry or the numbers involved in making a record, but I've heard different artists say in interviews that some studios and artists have to sell a minimum number of albums before they even make profit. That should be enough incentive for artists to keep a closer watch on their work and for label execs to protect their investment better.

In the hobbled economy we're facing, people have less money to spend on luxury items like entertainment (music, movies, theme park visits, etc) and these people who leak new music are taking advantage of the common desire to get more for less these days. However, artists deserve their paycheck like anyone else and with new releases being sold for just $9.99 I think everyone can afford to support their favorite artists, even if they have the opportunity to get it for free. You can bet I'll be in the store this Sunday to buy Pearl Jam's new CD as well as back to get the new Alice In Chains CD a week later, even though I could go download them.

PLEASE SUPPORT THE ARTISTS BY PURCHASING THEIR MUSIC

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Halloween 2: Rob Zombie's Brutal Final Chapter

Rob Zombie made Halloween his own in 2007 after being approached by Dimension Films, and rather than let someone else continue his vision, he has returned to finish it himself in brutal, bloody, squirm in your seat fashion.

Being that he firmly repeated he was only doing one film, I took the ending of his first Halloween film as the true ending to his story as a standalone vision. That was until I started seeing images of an "H2" movie poster and reports that he signed on to make the sequel to his film. I walked away from the first one thinking that Rob had recreated this character to be so terrifying that it re-defined the series and couldn't wait to see how he would continue that. I had no idea just how far he was going to take his vision of making Michael Myers a truly terrifying character.

**SPOILER ALERT**
Do not read anything between these two spoiler alert warnings if you don't want to know the details of the film. Highlight the blank area below to reveal the details.

The film opens with a quick flashback to a young Michael Myers in the mental institution having lunch with his mother Deborah Myers, played again by Rob's wife Sheri Moon. His time in the institution followed the murdering rampage that occurred when he killed his older sister and her boyfriend along with his mother's boyfriend in the first film. Unfortunately, for those of us who saw his first film we see a new actor in the young character role. This is my only gripe for this film, as I hate seeing actors replaced in a series if anything for the sheer purpose of continuity. However, I understand that perhaps Daeg Farch, who played young Michael in his first Halloween film, now looks too old to have reprised his role and the director has to find a way to move on. After the short flashback, the movie picks up the moment after the first one had ended, with a blood-stained and traumatized Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton)walking down the middle of the street after having "killed" Michael Myers. Laurie is taken to the hospital where she is stripped down and cleaned while doctors prepare to close up her many wounds and a fingernail removal provides the first squirm-worthy moment. We then see Myers' body being transported when he escapes in one of the most graphic scenes of the film.

The film follows Laurie Strode in the aftermath of her encounter from the first film, examining how tortured she is in believing she killed Michael but the fact that he may still be alive being that "no body was found". Meanwhile, Michael kills takes one victim after another and the killing scenes are so brutally realistic and violent even the hardcore horror fans will find themselves in shock. A few examples include Michael stomping a man's head in, snapping a man's forearm leaving him screaming while he runs from Michael holding his dangling arm, impaling a few drunken hunters on the deer antlers that adorn their truck, and the beheading of one of the men who were transporting him when he escaped.

**END OF SPOILER ALERT**
There are plot details below but more observational than revealing

We learn while following Laurie that her dreams are haunted with visions of Michael coming after her, leaving a trail of disfigured victims behind along the way. She struggles with the idea that she killed Michael but somehow he could still be after her and that idea lives in her dreams. Some of these dream sequences, especially near the end of the film are reminiscent of something that would have come from his "House of 1,000 Corpses" movie for their very strange figures and styling. Of course, using the scenes as Laurie's dreams allowed Rob a lot of freedom to go as far as he wanted to in the realm of strange which he took full advantage of. Many of the sequences, both being Laurie's dreams and visions that Michael has, are those of his dead mother Deborah all in white with a horse, surrounded by a backlit glow. For me, the scenes with Deborah are too similar to the Friday The 13th scenes with the mother of Jason Voorhees (most notably from "Freddy Vs. Jason").

I have seen a natural evolution in the four films directed and written by Rob Zombie and while none of them are perfect, they all stand alone as incredible films. His first film, House of 1,000 Corpses, was like a trip through a psychedelic haunted house following the twisted Firefly family while its sequel, The Devil's Rejects, left the colors behind and turned to cinematic grit with a far more violent approach to the rampages of the family on the run. The Halloween film released in 2007 showed how Rob was able to take a known character and storyline and turn it into something new and fresh, revealing a backstory to the origin of Michael Myers as a killer. This new Halloween film turns the volume way up as we see just how violent and scary Michael Myers is as he brutally and graphically murders anyone in his path as he seeks out Laurie. Rob's killer is a large, powerful man and the angry grunts that Michael lets out while slashing his victims shows what a brute killing force he is. As Otis says in the "House" film, "the boogeyman is real, and you found him." For those of you who have seen it, I'd love to hear your opinion on the film and on my review and for those who have yet to see it, prepare yourself for a new breed of killer in this revived Michael Myers.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Front To Back(Spacer) Review

Pearl Jam's new album Backspacer is due in Target stores, as well as independent retailers, this Sunday September 20th. Thanks to a plethora of sources that have leaked the album online, I already have the full album surging through my earphones and will be sharing a track-by-track preview of the album. Of course, I will be at my local Target bright and early Sunday morning because I still support artists by purchasing their music.

It is only out of sheer impatience that I am taking advantage of this leak, but I urge everyone out there to go buy the album and support the artists that make the music you love. New releases are only $9.99 at Target and Best Buy, and some independent retailers like Dimple Records in the Sacramento area. Long gone are the days when music fans have to shell out 16 bucks for a new CD, now that retail giants like Tower Records have met their demise. I'm not saying that any given album may not be worth that much money. Pearl Jam's eight previous albums if purchased at $15 bucks a piece comes out to $135. I got most of them for less but I would have paid more than double that price for all they've given me. The point is that a great album can be enjoyed for several years and you'll get much more out of it than the must-have Coach purse that will end up in the bottom of your closet and every artist deserves to be paid for their work.

Backspacer is Pearl Jam's ninth studio release, not counting compilations or live material, and the first since their 1998 release Yield to be recorded with producer Brendan O'Brien. He reconnected with the band when he helped put together the reissue of the band's classic album Ten with a remixed version of the album combined with the remastered original, in various packages and formats. It was sometime in July when I heard parts of the first single "The Fixer" during a baseball TV spot, and started scouring the Internet for more clips. It wasn't long before I heard the full song and then saw them perform "Got Some" on the premiere of the Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien. Soon after, clips of other songs started popping up everywhere and the September release date finally started to feel within reach. Here is my review of the album, track by track.

1. Gonna See My Friend
This strong opening of the album opener, much like "Breakerfall" did for Binaural, tells you that these guys are energized and ready to have some fun. Eddie's abrasive, shouted delivery gives the song an in-your-face presence without being excessive. The song ends, just as frantically as it began, at a concise 2:48.

2. Got Some
I love this track for many reasons; immediately for the fact that Jeff's bass playing jumps out at you and it's great to hear him so prominently. The layers of Mike and Stone on guitar over Jeff's bass and Matt's drums are both chaotic and systematic at the same time. I love the growl in Eddie's vocals and as they mix with Jeff's heavy bass lines I immediately feel a heavy punk influence. As mentioned before, it was performed on Conan O' Brien's show but until hearing it on the album you can't really appreciate this track. One of my favorites on the album, coming in at exactly 3:00.

3. The Fixer
By the way this track opens, I picture this as a better album opener for the way it draws you straight in. An obvious first single, it reveals itself as optimistic and even "pop", never falling short of making its mark as the first track most listeners will want to hear again. The track has been unusually described as "Super poppy", "Just plain fun", "Surprisingly optimistic" and "Catchy as hell" by the media while others have speculated that President Obama is the subject of the song (the fixer). I love how the track "begins again" as it approaches the 2 minute mark just long enough to run the chorus again for those who aren't ready for it to end. This track lives up to all of the unexpected praise it's received and feels like a significant change in the direction of the band, accomplished in just 2:56.

4. Johnny Guitar
The energy continues with this track, vocals dipping and rising along with swaying guitars and nice pace change just past the 1:00 mark with thick spacial guitars and deep bass lines. Another heavy hitter and my favorite on the album; fades out just before 2:50.

5. Just Breathe
This track sounds as if it were an outtake from Eddie's Into The Wild soundtrack album and the acoustic guitar reminds me of "Dust In The Wind" by Kansas which is met with organ and later by Jeff's bass and a string arrangement. The first "slow" track on the album, definitely up there with the best of its kind in their catalog. This could be a good pre-show warm up song for Eddie to play at their shows like he's done with tracks like "Dead Man", and is the first track on the album to break the 3-minute mark at 3:33.

6. Amongst The Waves
A nicely paced track with Jeff's bass front and center again, the track ironically builds like a wave (think "Given To Fly" from Yield) as it reaches a crescendo. Excellent guitar solo from Mike McCready, which I'm sure he'll shred on live, ending to the lyric "riding high amongst the waves". One of the longer tracks on the album, just shy of 4:00.

7. Unthought Known
Intro nearly reminiscent of "Love Boat Captain" from Riot Act with strumming guitar beneath Eddie's building vocals, rising with piano and drums before exploding into a beautiful peak with all members coming together, eventually returning to single guitar following Eddie's voice to the finish at 4:08.

8. Supersonic
Fast, fun, furious, reminds me of "Mankind" from No Code. The song goes faster and faster (true to its name) until it breaks down to an incredible heavy jam, with a nice McCready solo thrown in, before returning to its locomotive pace as it comes to the close at 2:36.

9. Speed Of Sound
Starts off like a slow ballad before a beat kicks in, a very different track from nearly anything they've done before. I think a more stripped down version may have suited the song better as the beat seems a bit forced; rounds out at 3:30.

10. Force Of Nature
A paced drum intro reminds me of "Urgent" from Foreigner just before the buzzing guitars give way to Eddie's vocals, later interlaced with that familiar click of the cowbell. I really enjoy this track, for no particular reason beyond the fact that it's just a solid track, lyrically and musically. The pace and vocal styling could be compared to Steve Winwood's "While You See A Chance"; track comes to a close at 4:02.

11. The End
The closing track, a sweeping ballad filled with strings behind Eddie's soaring vocals and acoustic guitar. A bit haunting at times, admittedly by Eddie himself from interviews, the track ends abruptly at 2:52 after the line "I'm here, but not much longer".

You'll notice I included the duration of each track, simply to elaborate on something Eddie has mentioned in their "Backspacer short" video, in which he said "we've certainly made our excessive records". Guitarist Mike McCready went on to say that the album is "tight and concise." The total duration of the whole album is just past 36 minutes, and that wouldn't usually matter until you consider bands like Metallica who boast 70 minutes plus on their albums and it may make some people feel short-changed to wait for a new release that you can play all the way through on a moderate work commute. That is definitely not the case with this album because however brief it may seem, it makes up for it in all the right ways. I highly suggest setting aside 40 minutes for yourself uninterrupted to find a pair of nice headphones and give this album your full attention.

The Ten album is easily a classic and a huge fan favorite, but I have held Yield to be my personal favorite album since its release. I was at the midnight sale the night before its release date and played it endlessly for days. I still love it tremendously, and "Given To Fly" was the inspiration for a poem I wrote for a family who lost their son. I'm not sure if it's purely coincidence that this is the first album since my beloved Yield done with O'Brien, but I have to say after hearing this album it is growing on my quickly and could be a close tie with Yield. This is an excellent Pearl Jam album that any fan of rock music, not just of Pearl Jam, should have in their collection.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Grunge Is Alive (Again)

For several years following the demise of the Seattle "Grunge" scene, Pearl Jam has proudly and successfully held their ground as the last band standing. However, one band from that era is ready to reclaim their rightful place in the spotlight; that band is Alice In Chains.

Following the tragic death of Layne Staley in April of 2002, the remaining members of Alice In Chains (founder/guitarist Jerry Cantrell, bassist Mike Inez and drummer Sean Kinney) were forced to take a break and it wasn't until a Tsunami benefit show in 2005 that they reunited, with the help of various guest singers. The benefit show sparked a reunion tour, introducing William Duvall as a new member of the band; a previous tourmate from Jerry's solo projects. Upon reuniting for the tour, drummer Sean Kinney expressed interest in recording new material but was hesitant to move on as Alice In Chains out of respect for Layne. However, it wasn't long before the band announced that they were recording with producer Nick Raskulinecz (Foo Fighters, Rush, Stone Sour) for a Summer 2009 release; their first in 14 years, not including a number of compilations.

The album, titled "Black Gives Way To Blue", is set for release on September 29th. Its first single "A Looking In View" does well to mimic the signature sound previously created by combining Jerry and Layne's vocals in haunting harmonies. The song is dark and heavy and certainly the farthest thing from playing it safe that the band could have done for their first venture with the new lineup. The second single, "Check My Brain", is Jerry's story of moving from Seattle to Los Angeles, and is every bit as strong but not quite as heavy as "View". The title track of the album, a stirring tribute to Layne, features piano by Elton John who graciously accepted Jerry's request to play on the song after receiving an email from him explaining the song's meaning. Jerry and Elton have expressed a great deal of mutual respect in separate interviews regarding the guest spot, so the possibility of Elton playing on the track was far more feasible than Jerry had originally thought.

For me, Alice In Chains is the unsung hero of the Grunge era of rock. Pearl Jam may be my favorite band, but the sound created by Alice In Chains with Layne and now while moving on is every bit as important to the legacy of that huge movement and to me personally and I can't wait to hear the album from beginning to end. I remember playing the CD of their MTV Unplugged show and my dad (who wasn't really a fan) ended up keeping it because he was so blown away by it. When it was released on DVD, I watched it for the first time in a dark room surrounded by candles and hardly blinked for the whole performance. The bottom line is that these guys aren't out to replace Layne Staley, they're a group of musicians who fought to save their struggling friend and by moving on they can celebrate the music they made with him, while creating new music for the people who want to listen. For the haters, imagine if AC/DC quit when Bon Scott died; enough said.

One last thought....
While I eagerly anticipate Pearl Jam's release "Backspacer" on September 20th, in addition to the new Alice In Chains record, I think "A Looking In View" should win the Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance at the 52nd Grammy Awards January 31, 2010.

**UPDATED**
After writing this post in anticipation for the release of the new album from Alice In Chains, I've had the chance to hear it all the way through. Along with "A Looking In View" and "Check My Brain", strong tracks include "Acid Bubble" and the first acoustic track "Your Decision". You can hear new vocalist Duvall shine on "Last Of My Kind" while he proves his worth without trying to be a Layne clone.

However, as great of a heavy rock album this is and as great of a job they did to capture the sound that everyone loves, it's the stunning title track that really grabs me. It's beautifully written and played and the tone is set from the beginning, as Jerry Cantrell says goodbye to their friend. Elton's piano provides the perfect background for Jerry's sweeping guitars and vocals; a very worthy tribute.

"Lay down, black gives way to blue....lay down, I'll remember you."